Satbir Singh discusses how the Windrush scandal is symptomatic of an inaccessible immigration system in the first article of a series curated for Windrush Day by Kiri Kankhwende
Two months have passed since the country – and the world – came to learn about the appalling treatment of members of the Windrush generation. To learn all that they have suffered at the hands of the British Government. To learn about doors being battered down by enforcement officials in the middle of the night. Grandparents being thrown into detention centres. About cancer patients being denied treatment. About British citizens, black men and women who came over here in the 50s, 60s and 70s being denied the right to work, access to their pensions, benefits and their healthcare.
Resignations have been tendered. Compensation offered. Apologies made. Ministers have fallen over one another to thank the Windrush generation for their service to the country or to lash out and blame the civil service for all that happened, as if they had no part to play in it. Or to express shock upon the discovery that the government’s decision to look tough on immigration at all costs… might have some costs.
But the apologies and blaming and offers to put things right have yet to put things right. How do you compensate a man or woman who has lost everything? Their right to a normal life? Their right to travel to a family funeral? Their right to a job? Their livelihoods? How do you compensate victims of the Windrush scandal for the years of stress, anxiety and depression?
The Windrush scandal, whatever officials say to the contrary, was no mistake.
It was the Hostile Environment policy doing exactly what it says on the tin.
The brainchild of then Home Secretary Theresa May, the Hostile Environment is defined by two key features.
The first is the expansion of the list of rights, activities and services (both public and private) denied to those who cannot, when asked, demonstrate their right to be in the country. Not only is it now illegal to work or to access public funds without the right paperwork, it is also illegal to possess a driving license, to rent a home, open a bank account or access most forms of public healthcare.
Alongside this sits the wholesale conscription of doctors, landlords, bank clerks, nurses, teachers and social workers into de facto immigration guards – all of whom are now required by the UK Government to check individuals’ immigration status before providing their services. Meanwhile, the penalties for failing to do so have been stiffened, with landlords facing up to five years in prison if a tenant is found to not have the right to remain in the UK. Employers, social workers and police officers are similarly all required to report those without papers to the Home Office.
These draconian policies are among a raft of other measures designed to make the immigration system as inaccessible and as brutal as possible.
The process of making an application or an appeal has been rendered impossible to navigate for anyone without a good lawyer, while legal aid has been completely removed from almost all aspects of immigration law and the fees charged by the Home Office have risen in some cases by up to 300%. Entry clearance officials are encouraged to treat all individuals with suspicion and enforcement officers work toward targets for the number of people removed.
Even for those who are unfamiliar with immigration law, it’s not difficult to see from the outset how people of colour and people without means will inevitably suffer in this environment. A landlord without a racist bone in his body will fear the consequences of getting something wrong and so will choose to play it safe, renting only to white tenants with Anglo-Saxon names and local accents. Conversely, a nurse who doesn’t have the time between a burst appendix and a compound fracture to check everybody’s paperwork will potentially end up singling out those who look or sound ‘like immigrants’. The small business owner who doesn’t know the difference between an NTL stamp and a BRP card will be reluctant to hire the foreign-born candidate.
And if, like the Windrush generation, you simply don’t have the necessary paperwork, there’s little you can do. If you have fled an abusive relationship and therefore don’t have your papers, you can be denied healthcare. If you overstay your visa because you can’t afford the fees to renew it, or to appeal an incorrect decision by the Home Office, you can be evicted from your home and stripped of your right to work. In 2018 , we are mandated to do all this to one another despite the government’s admission that it does not monitor how any of these twisted schemes work. Evidently the only criteria these policies needed to meet was the extent to which they could make the government look tough on immigration.
Windrush wasn’t an accident.
In many ways, Theresa May’s government has succeeded in what it set out to do.
It has created a truly hostile environment, in which neighbours are afraid of neighbours. Tenants are blackmailed by rogue landlords who threaten to call the Home Office. Patients are afraid to go to the doctor. Victims of sexual violence, trafficking and domestic abuse are afraid to approach the police as even victims of crime are passed directly to immigration enforcement. Many have every right to be here in the UK but they are thwarted at every turn by a system that is designed to deny them those very rights.
In this environment we all suffer. We watch as our friends return shaken from their weekly appointments with the Home Office. As our parents are denied medication and our colleagues are asked to show their papers. As people who believed themselves to be British are reminded that their skin colour, their name or their accent can render them suspect.
This spectre of being “other” is no accident. It is the inevitable product of political decisions. Only through political decisions can it be unmade. It is time to end the Hostile Environment.
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Satbir Singh is Chief Executive of the JCWI Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. JCWI is an independent national charity which exists to campaign for justice in immigration, nationality and refugee law and policy.
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Main image by Global Justice Now